Some conversations with customers are a bit like a trip down the Wikipedia rabbit hole where you just kind of hold on and see where you end up. You know how it goes: one minute you’re watching a Hidden Valley salad dressing commercial with Jenny Garth and three hours later your roommate finds you rocking back and forth watching the Richard Donner cut of Superman II and you have a perfectly reasonable, logical and well documented explanation for how you got from point A to B.
It happens to us all. But that’s how these conversations can go; they’ll start with a perfectly innocent (albeit stupid) question and then it’s liftoff. That customer sweeps through and picks you up, and really, who knows where you’re going to end up when they’re done with you.
One customer confided in me in graphic detail how he would like to murder a Florida prosecutor who had convicted his son of having attempted to murder his wife. It wasn’t that the man doubted his son’s guilt, in fact, his crime was also described for me in great detail, but instead simply that this attorney had the nerve to punish his boy. I’d known the man all of thirty seconds when this happened and was only trying to recommend a nice supernatural teen series for his granddaughter. This happens. A lot.
“Does it matter what tablet I have?” the woman asked me when I noticed her at the ereader accessories display. “Is there a difference between the sizes for these cases?”
“Oh yeah. Everything’s a different size. Which device do you have?”
“I don’t know. It was my son’s—my older son’s. He got a new one and gave his to his younger brother, I don’t know what it is or what size. It looks like these.”
I explained that she needed to get the make and model of the device, that she should ask her son about it. He’ll know what it is, so as long as she writes it down, we can tell her whether there’s something in the store that would work, or if she needs to look elsewhere to get a case for her baby boy’s new toy.
At this point, I think we’re done. I think she thought we were done. We should have been done. That would have been cool, since up until this point, she seemed nice. And not crazy at all.
Nope. Nope, not done, because then she notices a display we have up. Ok, busted, it wasn’t a company mandated display but instead one we threw up because we had boxes of this teen series and nowhere to put it. See, we sold a handful of Asylum and its sequel Sanctum, so the company shipped us 60 more of each one. That’s how it goes. Sell one? Here’s seven! Returned four? No, you must have done that by mistake, here’s fifteen!
“Oh what’s this?!”
“That? That’s a cool teen series, I think this one’s the first one,” I say, pointing to it, “It’s about kids in a prep school who live in an old psych hospital. There’s all these photographs throughout the—”
“That’s disgusting when they do that, like that one, they shouldn’t be opening a hotel or whatever, they need to tear that place down, I used to work there, there’s no reason to keep it around—”
“Yeah, of course,” I said before realizing I had no idea what she was talking about. Now she’s fired up, she’s talking and she’s talking fast. There’s barely a space between words or a breath between sentences, there’s no space between thoughts. You’re going to have trouble keeping up. “Wait, what place?”
“The Richardson Complex. I used to work there, it was horrible, I lasted a week, I was in college, you should have seen the way they were treated there, the kids had to take care of other patients and most of them weren’t even crazy, they’d just been abandoned and no one knew what to do with them, you know who was crazy? The ones running the place, those were the crazy ones, and the ones who want to turn it into a hotel now—”
“That reminds me of a book we have in our biography section,” I said, hoping to bring the conversation back around to her spending some money, “It’s the State Boys Rebellion, about kids who were institutionalized in the 50s, most of them were just unwanted—”
“No, they weren’t there—”
“At the Psych Center, that wasn’t them.”
“Well no, it was a different institution, but it’s like what you were saying about—”
“It wasn’t them, I can’t believe they would do that, they need to tear that place down, whatever with it being a historical building, it’s disgusting what happened there, no, I don’t think I can read those, those kids shouldn’t even have been there, so I should talk to my son and see what kind of tablet he has?”
“Exactly,” I agreed. I was starting to get dizzy. “Ask him who made it and what the name of it was, the make and model, and we can figure out what kind of case you need and whether we have it or not.”
“OK, honey, you’re so sweet, I will, I’ll ask him and come back and see you, thank you for taking the time, I’ll see you soon.”
And then she’s gone, and you stand there for a few seconds. Sometimes you smile to yourself and shake your head, sometimes another customer who may have overheard a part of the conversation makes eye contact with you and you both laugh. Your laughter isn’t malicious. You’re not laughing to be mean or to make fun of them; you’re genuinely amused by this crazy person tornado you just experienced. In fact, you’re not even sure you helped this customer at all even though they left super happy about their experience in the store and the amazing customer service they received.
Well, at least from their perspective. You’re still wondering what just happened.
Let me tell you something about the people you’ll work with in a bookstore: there will be a lot of them. A bookstore is a retail store and working retail is not for the faint of heart. You need a strong back, a tough skin and a sick ability to be abused by customers and coworkers alike and still smile. A lot of them will be gone before you commit their names to memory, and some will stick around far past the point you feel they should. Some will have surprisingly little interest in reading or selling books, or in doing much of anything.
And then there are some who will remind you in everything they do that life should not be measured by sales trends and customer counts and goal sheets, its not all about the paycheck and the to-do lists; they will remind you that the most important stories in your bookstore are not the ones you’re selling, but those that you are experiencing. They will show you that the bookstore itself is your story, or at least part of it, and it is filled with characters who are boring, or quirky, infuriating, confusing (or just plain confused), energetic, heartbreaking and soul-saving. Some of these will be short stories, some will be stories that are never finished, some are epic narratives that span decades and intersect a thousand other stories in ways you could never expect.
Today, this lesson, is about one coworker specifically, because today (right now, actually) we’re celebrating the retirement of Gerriann, who has spent the last twenty-two years not only selling books and running bookclubs, but has kept us all smiling and sane, and more importantly, she’s fed us. A happy bookseller is the one who just a got a free meal, and Gerri has been the heart, soul and oven behind more well-fed booksellers and bookstore pot-lucks than you can imagine.
I was asked to write a short bio of Gerri to submit to our company newsletter, celebrating her service to company, to the store, to our customers, our staff and the world of literature in general. And in typical Gerrian fashion, she then basically wrote the article herself. Instead of letting me interview her, she left in my mailbox a completed (albeit brief) autobiography that began with her as a little girl, first falling in love with books. Easiest assignment I have ever had.
So, when it is so easy to overlook the people working at the stores we shop in, I want to share with you this article I “wrote” and let you meet a bookseller who’s well-deserved retirement is going to leave our store with a little less laughter and little bit hungrier, and with a great story for having known her.
“Growing up, reading was my favorite pastime, whether I was in my treehouse or riding my horse. Not surprisingly, the Black Stallion series was one of my favorites. And when I wasn’t reading, I spent a lot of time volunteering and working in children’s libraries, where my own passion for these stories developed into a deep knowledge of children’s literature.
In 1992, i was working for a clothing retailer when I heard from a friend that [the company] was hiring for two new stores in Western New York. On my lunch hour I went for an interview (I always kept a resume in my car) and was hired on the spot as an assistant manager in one of the stores. That was the start of my love affair with the bookselling business, and 20 years later, I’m still in love with it.
Now, I’m the merchandise manager. I love working the salesfloor with our great staff and talking to customers about our favorite books, recommending new authors to them and even learning of a few myself.
Thirteen years ago, I joined the Historical Fiction book club with Fay, who runs our children’s storytimes, and our group still has many of the same members years later. With each book we choose, I always do a little research about the time period and the facts surrounding the story and give a handout to the group to take our discussion beyond just the novels themselves.
My love of children’s literature from my time working in libraries has only grown… and has extended into my volunteering with Project Flight, a local literacy group that puts books into the hands of children around the world.
Next week, I will start a new chapter in the Book of Life: retirement. I plan to volunteer full time with Project Flight, and maybe even start a storytime or book club in my neighborhood school. And it’s a safe bet you’ll see me at the store, sitting by the fireplace, reading a great novel and sipping my latte.”
I just want to point out that apparently, Gerri loved reading so much, she could do it while riding a horse. If that kind of dedication doesn’t foreshadow a career in the book industry, I don’t know what does.
So, here’s to retirement; and to all the little things future booksellers will only hear about… to the lasagna and salad and cookies, and the brownies with Snickers or Andes mints (and once, an Andes mint wrapper), to vegetables from your garden, and keeping the yogurt your doctor forced you to eat in the freezer to pretend it was ice cream, to the bookseller you practically adopted, who ended up marrying your son, and stories about your crazy cat and grumpy husband, who I was terrified would answer the phone anytime I had to call you; to the sand and beach balls you put in the store’s front windows for your ‘books for the beach’ display, to letting us film a Jewish rapper’s music video in the back hallway. Lil Benji’s career never quite took off, but I’m sure he never forgot your support, even if you have no idea what I’m talking about.
Here’s to always having an enthusiastic and a little bit loopy “OK!” or “uh HUH!” ready no matter what the question or request, and whether or not those responses actually answered the question; and you coming down with pneumonia because someone sneezed in the breakroom, and every other diseases or physical ailment you’ve “contracted” over the years. Why we didn’t all chip in a buy you a John Travolta-esque bubble suit years ago, I have no idea.
Gerri, here’s to being the other half of our merchandising team, and keeping me sane(ish) simply by reminding me that the business may change but at the heart of it all, we’re there to share books and engage the people who walk through the doors. Without taking the time to do that we won’t sell a thing, and no one involved, not the book buyers or the booksellers, will remember why being a part of this bookstore is so important. And here’s to—wait, did I mention the Andes brownies already?
And here’s to your coworkers, one of the reasons you should want to work in a bookstore.
No longer resigned to lounging on the couch on Sundays for every football game ever, no longer for painting or yardwork or staring at that weight bench in your basement you keep intending to use. What? No, you will, I know. Next week. You’ll start your workout routine next week.
No! No sir, not anymore are sweatpants marginalized and cast aside in favor of pants with their fancy zippers and buttons and measured waists. Who the hell do those pants think they are? No more!
Sweatpants. Sweatpants are your going out pants now, because somewhere along the line we have devolved into a society where this is entirely acceptable. With sweatpants you get a a full range of motion, the possibility of keeping one pair your entire life no matter how fat you end up with their revolutionary stretchable elastic waistband; and, of course, the liberating knowledge that your balls are just bouncing free as you walk, unhindered by stiff, restrictive fabric that other “pants” fall victim to. The ladies will love that last bit. A man in sweatpants is DTF, you better believe that. And for the record, real men wear their sweatpants pulled up an inch above their ankles to properly show off the white socks they’re wearing with sandles.
I was kneeling down, putting some books away on the bottom shelf when a husky, sweatpants clad customer who had a five-o’clock shadow on only half his face, stopped at the end of the aisle.
When I looked up he gave me a big, wide-eyed smile and snapped the waistband of his sweatpants.
“Yes sir!” he yelled and nodded at me, his eyebrows threatening to jump off his face, and continued on his way.
“Ok,” I said to the now empty space he had occupied (well, what else do you say?) and went back to what I’d been doing.
Until he came back. He always come back, that’s an important point to remember. You spoke while facing his general direction and that means you spoke to him. That means, as far as Sweatpants Guy is concerned, you are the only person in the store. You made the mistake of acknowledging his existence, something that apparently no one else has done in quite some time.
See, you’re the guy in the horror movie that opened the creepy nailed-shut door behind a shelf in his basement his first night in the new house that he bought for a surprisingly low price that the rest of the town avoids going near. How many red flags do you need? The house was wearing sweatpants, why did you even look at it? Now you’re the guy that lets out the evil spirit that’s been trapped in there since the house was built over an old Indian burial ground. Now, you gotta pay the piper, because that evil sweatpants-wearing spirit will now feast on what is left of your retail soul.
Anything else Sweatpants Guy needs to ask, that he needs to say, any other thought regarding his favorite snack foods or his opinion of the color green, anything at all that pops into his lumpy noggin that he inexplicably needs to speak aloud, he will find you, and he will tell you. And only you. Because you’re friends now.
Sweatpants Guy popped back around the corner of the aisle about 27-seconds later—-he didn’t come back into the aisle, make no mistake about that—-he only leaned around the corner. And waited. I saw him out of the corner of my eye and took a deep breath. I’d been through this before. There’s no point in trying to avoid it or pretend he isn’t there. Sweatpants Guy has nowhere else to be. He can do this all night. He stared at me silently until I looked up.
“Do you still have—-you have paper applications, or I do it online now?”
“Excellent!” he yelled, and pumped his fist int he air, and with a sweatpanty swish and a cloud of the cheap potpourri he rubbed on himself before leaving the house to mask that man-stink of indeterminate origins, he disappeared again, leaving me with the realization that he would probably get hired and I would be the one to argue with him that sweatpants were not acceptable work attire.